A lot of interesting debate followed my Quillette article, and I think it might be useful to elaborate on it a little bit; specifically, explain how I believe the correlation between public participation in the economy and political rights is created in practice. You can think of it as trying to answer the question “if political rights depend on economic participation, then why is Norway democratic and China authoritarian, rather than the other way around”?
First of all, it’s important to clarify that I described this as a historical trend, it’s not a law of nature. It’s certainly possible that some cases will go against the trend. But we don’t have to stop here; if we think more deeply about this theory, we might realize it’s actually stronger than it might seem at first.
The first concept I’d like to introduce here is political inertia. By default, any political structure has a strong tendency to keep existing: some people hold a lot of power in it and want to continue holding it, and many of the people who do not necessarily hold much power, are nonetheless content enough with their life to prefer stability over the uncertainty of change; these are two advantages automatically given to the maintaining the status-quo. Therefore, it’s very much possible that some political structure will be created, even with great majority support of its population, and later reach a situation where most people would have prefered a different structure if they could start over, yet still prefer to keep the current one just to avoid the dangers and uncertainty of change. Let’s call this situation “political tension” – the amount of people under a political entity who would prefer a different system than the one they live under at the given time (theoretically, we’d want to multiply this by “how strongly they would prefer that”, but that’s not really a measurable quantity).
This, in many ways, is the brilliance of free democratic elections: they allow the population to peacefully release most aspects of political tension. When a majority of the population is not happy with the government’s performance, by next elections they change it and reduce the tension, leaving (hopefully) a much smaller amount of people unhappy with the new government. This does not always work so well in practice for reasons I’ll discuss in the future, but it clearly works well; we can complain about our democracies as much as we want, but we’d have to be extremely ignorant to deny how much more peaceful and prosperous they made those parts of the world that built them well (what exactly I mean by building democracy “well” is something else I’ll discuss in the future).
Even in a democracy though, not everything can be changed in the elections. On the one hand, issues that are considered too important to leave to the voters, like borders, population and democracy itself; on the other hand, issues that are not important enough to have an effect on the vote. Many people might have opinions about transportation policy or government support for the arts, but votes are usually given based on more urgent things. In an authoritarian system, almost everything is unchangeable for the common people. They gather much more political tension, and therefore require much more repression to keep themselves functional.
So if political tension by itself does not necessarily guarantee political change, what does?
I’d like to suggest that this tension is itself a particular case of a wider measure – political stability. Any state needs to remain stable to survive; once enough factors reduce its stability to a low enough level – it will change. Either by revolution, seccession, invasion, or just gradual change by its current rulers.
And this is where my universal basic income article comes in. Having a state where public contribution and political participation do not match is not impossible, but it’s a less stable state. If it happens in a democracy, it’s very much possible that it will stay a democracy out of inertia – but if it becomes unstable enough, due to this or any other factors, it’s going to change, and once it starts changing (meaning inertia no longer applies), it’s very likely to change into the most stable state possible – therefore, a state where public participation and political rights do match.
So, what are these factors influencing stability? We’ve mentioned inertia, political tension, and difference between participation and rights. Looking at the world, we can guess a few more:
– Economic growth: a growing economy will naturally be more stable, as the people who are getting wealthier from it would like to continue getting wealthier. A shrinking economy will be less stable, and it’s no coincidence that some of the world’s worst conflicts tended to happen during economic crises. People who expect to become poorer have much less to lose from the uncertainty of political change.
– Ideology: While it might seem like I’m reducing people to the status of meaningless pawns with this theory, their beliefs and opinions definitely do matter here; some ideas prevalent in a society can have a large influence on its stability. Pluralism and family values are ideas that are likely to make a society more stable; Individualism or Marxism are likely to make a society less stable (just to clarify: “stable” does not mean good or bad necessarily; we’ll want a good state to be stable, and a bad state to be unstable. What “good” and “bad” means here is for you to decide).
– Ideology difference: While the previous item was about the ideologies themselves, here we add the difference in ideology between different parts of the population, and between the population and the ruling class, if there is a ruling class separate from the rest of society; as a classic example, religious differences between population and government, or between significant parts of the population, have constantly shown themselves to be sources of instability throughout history.
– Military power: As much as we might dislike it, military power is a source of stability for a country. Maintaining a righteus rule of law, or an evil, corrupt rule, or any other rule, requires the application of state violence, and we need to recognize it. The better a state is at applying this violence, the more stable it will be.
– External environment: It’s much easier for a country to have the same type of regime as its neighbors. I don’t think anyone is surprised neither at a democratization process in Serbia, for example, nor in a slide to authoritatianism in Cambodia. Both are relatively small countries, drawn to become more similar to their larger neighbors.
This is only a partial list. The point is, no country will immediately become authoritarian once it became rich from natural resources, and no country will immediately become democratic after having an industrial revolution. However, they will become less stable, and therefore more likely to change, when joined together with other sources of instability.
Norway and China were both given as counter-examples for my article; I’d argue that the Norwegian democracy has many factors contributing to its stability, including its North European environment, its relative ethnic and religious uniformity, and lack of significant revolutionary ideologies. China, likewise, has factors promoting stability, most notably its remarkable economic growth. If they reach a serious economic crisis, we’ll see: if at that point, most of their income comes from taxpayers, I’d be very surprised if we won’t eventually see a turn for democracy; hopefully in a peaceful, gradual change like what we saw (for the most part) in Taiwan and South Korea.
And one more clarification: All the above is an abstract model. It is not a scientifically proven theory and I’m fully aware of it. I offer it as food for thought, as a basis for discussion; not as an attempt to offer exact predictions. How much this abstract model actually fits reality, that’s for you to decide.